How suspicious should we be about the ‘new’ Harper Lee novel?

Should it be published or not? Tadeas

A sequel to Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird has been “found”, and will be published in July, her US publisher HarperCollins has announced. The sequel – Go Set a Watchman – was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but Lee’s editor persuaded her to take her grown-up character Scout back in time, and the multi-million selling novel was born, and the “sequel” discarded. Until now.

It’s big news in the literary world. Social media thrummed with the announcement, with the hashtag #HarperLee trending as readers remembered their love of the schoolroom set-text. Anyone else with publishing news to spread struggled for attention.

Lee is a notoriously absent author, fitting Joe Moran’s definition of the “author-recluse” in his book Star Authors. The author-recluse’s absences can, paradoxically, create a degree of celebrity. A refusal to engage with the task of the “author-promoter” can be taken as a sign of high literary prestige. (It can also result in voicelessness and lack of sales, but that’s a different story.)

The rumour mill

But alongside the excitement and the adoration, cynicism has already crept in. Is there something a little fishy about the book having “turned up”? How was Lee persuaded to publish it many decades later, and after originally being convinced by her publisher that a book from the young Scout’s perspective would be stronger? Will the publication of this book undermine Harper Lee’s reputation, and the status of To Kill a Mockingbird?

Mary Badham and Gregory Peck. x-ray_delta_one, CC BY-NC-SA

Internet chatter would suggest a tale mired in questions of ownership, legacy and manipulation. The announcement comes hot on the heels of the death of Lee’s sister, Alice, who acted (until the age of 100) as Harper’s lawyer. Harper’s own health is failing following a stroke. It’s been reported that Alice Lee said in 2011 that Harper isn’t always fully cognisant of the contracts she signs, which undermines the statement Lee made about her support for the new publication. The accusations have been swiftly rebutted by Lee’s agent, saying she is “alive and kicking and happy as hell” at the reaction to the announcement.

So should we see the publication of Go Set a Watchman (which will almost undoubtedly be a lesser novel than To Kill a Mockingbird) as an act of literary exploitation, and if so, of whom? Should it be published, or not?

Afterlives

Literary history gives us some instructive parallels. Lord Byron’s publisher John Murray burned the poet’s memoirs, in order to protect his author’s posthumous reputation. Murray hadn’t actually read them, but was acting on the word of the poet Thomas Moore, whose lurid recollections of the memoirs feed our understanding of what Byron’s account might have given us.

A mere handful of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published in her lifetime, following her decision to circulate them only among family and friends.

J R R Tolkien’s son Christopher is the author’s literary executor; key to the piecing together and posthumous publication of books including The Silmarillion. Despite this, a “labor of literary disinterment”, the global success of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films has not been so welcomed by the family; further adaptations will not be allowed. Christopher commented that his father:

Has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time … The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.

Such a turn away from commercialisation, and the exploitation of intellectual property, is a far cry from the world of global publishing and associated media industries, where literary agents such as Andrew Wylie represent the estates of authors such as Saul Bellow, J G Ballard, Elmore Leonard and Norman Mailer. Powerful custodianship of these estates maximise financial return and literary prestige while copyright continues (typically 50-70 years after death).

A different case

But, of course, Harper Lee is not dead. It’s hard to disentangle the truth behind the rumours of manipulation of Lee herself, although the demands for profit of global media businesses such as HarperCollins (part of the News Corporation empire) is always strong. Internationally recognised authors such as Lee give publishers the opportunity to develop brands, grow new income streams, and sustain backlist publishing.

The announcement of this new book will have prompted a spike in sales of the 1960 title, and so perhaps this is an exploitation of us as readers – or a reminder to any of us who haven’t read the original to read it before July. Whatever the literary qualities of Go Set a Watchman, it is bound to sell well.

If Lee really wants this publication, is it the equivalent of the ageing rock band wearily undertaking one last stadium tour, in order to rake in enough cash for a comfortable retirement? For the ailing Lee in her care home, comforted by a pile of royalties, that’s probably not the case.

And it must be said that given the choice between this book being in the public domain and not, I’d much rather it was. If nothing else, this new book will give us another case study of the collaborative relationship of publishers and writers, the ethics of cultural ownership, and power dynamics in literary networks.

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